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Monday, April 1, 2019

Pickett & Pogue (Melo-transcendentalism)

Do you ever get envious of some of the adventure pictures and stories you see on the web?
I know I do. "What a life!" I always think. "Must be nice to do that for a living instead of being a slave to the establishment." I can admittedly be a bit melo-transcendental at times (and yes, I did just make that word up). To travel - to experience and inspire!

"What if that was me?"

If you aren't careful, seeing folks that have somehow managed to live that lifestyle can force you into a rut.

Don't you let it.

Amanda and I have been hiking Tennessee trails since before we ever met. We've also been lucky enough to hike in some incredible places across the Southwest, and even across the world (though we haven't been out of the country together, yet). We may not live in a van or a modified school bus featuring a composting commode or solar shower, but we do escape on occasion to sleep in a tent for a few months, as long as there's a nearby bathhouse so we can still look presentable at work.

And even with all the time we've spent in the woods locally, we still come across treasures we couldn't have imagined in this part of the country. We came across one such treasure yesterday, which this blog's title eludes to.

Pickett State Park and Pogue Creek Canyon. Within an hour and a half of Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and Harriman, and yet we (as avid outdoors enthusiasts) had never even heard of it. In one place, you get the largest canyon I've ever seen in this state, natural arches and bridges, caves, and even waterfalls. The difficulty of the trails ranges from super flat and relaxing to walk on, to challenging even for the most experienced. It was a place with so many options to explore that we'd have had to camp there for a week to even put a dent in them. We fully intend to.

Our first trail (below) led us to Hazard Cave.

The trail was pretty mild most of the way, with a few steps and stones to traverse during the final descent.

Of course we had to play with silhouettes and lighting once we'd arrived.

And I never miss an opportunity to kiss my perfect wife.

The cave is to the left of this photograph. I tried to run and climb to join Amanda for the picture, but couldn't do it in the ten seconds my phone would allow before snapping the shot. 

...It would have taken me at least 14 seconds. 

After the cave, we decided to head over to the park's Natural Bridge. On the way, we saw the amazing root system below growing over a stone ledge.

And then we saw actual arches! In Tennessee! There are several throughout the park which we are intent on returning to find. Some of our favorite memories are at Arches National Park in Utah, where we cowboy camped and listened to a Native American man play a flute during a melancholic sunset. Arches are much more rare in our neck of the woods, and especially ones of this magnitude!

There was a staircase to the top of the bridge, which seemed to condone crossing it. In the Southwest, this is often a no-no.

 Amanda wanted to blend in with all the trees, so she pulled this one out of her yoga-repertoire.

If you want to see us in our element, you'll never get closer than the picture below. We walk our own individual trail in a lot of ways (I'm the idealist, she's the rationalist; I'm emotional and empathetic and she's a walking calculator who only shows her truest soul to yours truly). 

Hiking together is a great metaphor. Sometimes the trail is easy, sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's literally impossible to do alone. But you still hike the damned thing, no matter what. And more often than not, you'll find us with honest smiles like the ones beneath this text.

As we continued our hike, I was so happy to see (but mostly to smell) so much pine, which is very nostalgic for me as a South GA native in my childhood years. If you want, Amanda has managed to capture the fragrance astoundingly with her Pine or Cedar scented candles, which you can learn more about at The Gypsy's Store.

Pickett State Park featured super nice bathhouses and campsites, some of which were right on the water.

 There was a bouncy bridge that, while well constructed, made me feel a bit odd.

Both Pickett and Pogue are participants in the International Dark-Sky Association, which you can read more about in the photographs below.

To help support the many efforts of the State Park, we purchased a couple of t-shirts from the clearance rack in the visitor's center. I'm especially fond of mine, which features John Muir. If you haven't heard of him, you should definitely do some research on the guy. He's right up there with John Wesley Powell as an inspiration and a hero, but to be honest I need to do a lot more research myself as well. Essentially, all I know is that he had an amazing journey, advocated for the outdoors, and had one hell of a beard.

It was funny how it happened; While we were at Hazard Cave with no cell signal, our mutual best friend and hiking pal messaged us about an amazing place he'd found that he needed to show us. He sent a picture of one of the rock faces he was looking at, and Amanda and I had only seen one place like it in TN. The one we were at! No prior discussion, no planning at all, and we both selected the same park to hike on the same day, coming from different directions that were over an hour from Pickett. Once we returned to cell service, we managed to link up (it took all of five minutes - we actually found his car before any of the texts went through).

He then took us to Pogue, where I got the shot below.

She's so stunning.

Background isn't bad either.

 Our buddy (Steven) said that the view paled in comparison to the final overlook, but we were sadly losing light and had a long drive home.

The point, though, is this. If you can find places like that on short day trips (which you always can), it makes returning to work the next week a lot easier. I still get disillusioned, no doubt. All we want is a few acres to ourselves. A log home, some chickens, and a garden. Rain water and solar power and a German Shepherd. Space. Peace and quiet, to truly focus on the things I need to write and the messages I need to leave the world. To just focus on each other.

Those things will all happen in time though, and being inspired by places like Pickett and Pogue will ensure that it does.

You know what's funny? Sometimes, when I point people toward the blog they didn't know we had, they ask me if hiking is my job. When I tell them it isn't, they ask "How do you do it, with work and all?"

And that answer is one of the simplest of all.

I do it because I must.

Love ya'll. More to come.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ah, Spring:

Ah, Spring:
The sun is shining (on occasion, when it decides not to pretend it's still winter).
Folks are venturing once more into the great outdoors (where they can clog our trails and fill our campgrounds with litter).
The grass is growing (and growing grass must always be cut!).
Fresh flowers in bloom (and cars of all colors turn yellow, in permanent need of a wash).
No, but seriously, I'm stoked about spring. The parenthesis are for you "glass have empty" assholes - no judgement, I used to be one and still am on occasion. Everyone else can reread and omit the parenthesis.
SPRING! I'm so EXCITE that I forgot the "d" OMG. I'm gonna camp and fish and kayak and hike and camp camp camp!
We're gonna launch a whole new line of products - "The Campfire" line - which will be the exact same as the old line, except they'll be made on a FRIGGING CAMPFIRE! Campfire candles and melts and balms, oh my!
And campfire food, too!
And I've almost had my beard for a whole year, which is exciting. I started growing it the last time that it was SPRING! 
And it's almost time for our second trip to the Southwest, where we'll be having a wedding ceremony on the Grand Canyon's North rim. And I'll finally get to see the white dress she's been hiding from me, and her chaco'd feet beneath it.
Spring is the time for new life. For fresh starts. For change. If there's something you don't like about your life, SPRING into action (OH GOD I KILL MYSELF SPRING INTO ACTION THAT'S PUNNY HAHA).
Vitamin D and flowery dresses for my sweet three year old child.
Dark beers turn into light ones (which have fewer calories) to be drunk in moderation while singing "Kum Ba Ya".
The blog was in a bit of a hibernation - into the "Work, Sleep, Bills, Occasional-snow-hike-to-stay-focused" rut - but we're back, folks!
Know why?
Because it's
"Ah, Spring."

Here are some links for things you can do this spring if you're unfamiliar: (Hike the Smokies - reach out if you need more specific suggestions.) (Camp at Frozen Head - they have great bathhouses and plenty of trails.) (Rock climbing at Obed.)  (Take your 4x4 to Windrock!)

...and so, so much more.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Month In The Life of a Lion

I haven't had the time to write about life in the past month or so - I've been too busy living it. Fiercely and unapologetically. I've walked my authentic path and the result is something I haven't really experienced in the past: Happiness. Not some idealized version of the word, but rather the experience of living in the present moment without thousands of other things weighing down on my mind.

It hasn't been the forced version of happiness so common in America these days. It's not an Instagram photo with just the right filter to project false contentment. It's not ambition, where people scrape and hoard, using debt to fill a gap they can't explain. It's just happiness, man. The simplicity of it is a wildly complicated thing for an idealist like myself to describe, but it's just so easy - so natural - to experience. A life where I don't accept the guilt of other peoples' judgements. A life where the people that Amanda and I surround ourselves with love us for who we are without dissecting every decision we make or how it effects them. It's a life of agape love - of unconditional acceptance and respect of who a person is and why they make the decisions they make.

Acceptance...agape love...unconditional support. Wait, are we talking about a marriage?

As many of you may know, we are speaking of a marriage. All I've described above has indeed occurred on a larger scale, but only because we took the time to ensure it occurred on a smaller one. The concentrated version of the peace I've been writing about has a face: It's the one smiling in the engagement photo below.  

On Christmas Day, atop a ski-lift at Cataloochie Mountain, NC, Amanda agreed to be my wife. She accepted a ring that I had created for her by a craftsman in Israel who read our story before he began his work. The entire process, from the carving of a wax mold to the final setting of the diamond I chose for my wife, was undertaken with Amanda in the thoughts of the ring's creator. You can find pictures of Doron Merav's beautiful craftsmanship below, or visit his shop, Here! Doron is an alchemist who (rather than turning objects into gold) turns gold into lifelong promise. The only thing better than his craftsmanship is his level of customer service. I asked him to document his creation so Amanda could see that it came from nothing and was meant for her alone, and he provided me with the pictures below.

And here is a picture of the final product that I took upon its arrival: 

It's no secret that Amanda and I both individually had a rough few years before we met each other. It's also no secret that we both got out of relationships that weren't meant for us before we found one another. It's not a secret that we both distanced from the people in our lives while we focused on some important things that many people NEVER find the time to focus on: Who we are, how that has changed based on our life experiences, and just what it is that we want and need moving forward. What we want to contribute to the world in our lifetimes. We both found it at the same time, and we found it together.

"And so rock bottom became the foundation on which I built my life." - J.K. Rowling

I couldn't wait to marry her. Couldn't wait a year...not a month, even. I saw what the world was supposed to be and we, together, made it happen. Apart, we were survivors...together, we are conquerors. Our best mutual friend - a man largely responsible for our introduction - got ordained for us, and we were married on 1/13/2019. (Thanks, Steven!)

There's always been noise in my head, and a desperation to make it stop. I've constantly set my mind on some unachievable task or another. These days, and with Amanda by my side, I still have a mission, but it isn't a noise. There are no screaming voices that only I can hear. There's no desperation.

I still have things that I (myself) must contribute to the world - mostly through writing. My mission in life is to give the collective human perception a few "nudges" which, combined with similar nudges from a thousand idealists, will redirect the course of human thought. 

We will encourage authenticity, self-care, and the pursuit of knowledge. We will defy dated perceptions that our lives must be lived out according to some societal mold, or that God is a tyrannical character that's full of vengeance and destruction. We will learn to accept and love our truest selves, and in doing so, will be better equipped to find the person who completes such a love. 

In time, I will nudge. 

But for now, I exist in this moment. I treasure this feeling. And with the support of a human that I will live and die with, I rest and recover from a world that has exhausted me, and I learn that the world doesn't have to be as cruel a place as I have always imagined it to be. 

Pictures from the month's other adventures can be found below - it was really far too much to write about in one sitting. We spent time on a friend's beautiful farm. We taught my brother to snowboard and celebrated Christmas and New Years with our family and close friends. We went mud-bogging until around midnight, and very nearly got stuck. We spent time with the most precious little toddler on the planet. I started a new job where I have my own space and my efforts are appreciated - the first position I've held in my adult life where I don't wear a uniform. We expanded our start-up business. I nearly completed my memoir - just a few edits and expansions to go until my next book is completed.

Too much, indeed, to fully describe. Much love, humanity. Talk soon. ;) 

-The Bard

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

On Pain and Comfort




Desperation - Focus...

Desperation - Focus!

Desperation - Focus...

Absolute exhaustion.

Oh, yeah. I've been there. Survived it for far too long. Committed myself to false institutions and to perspectives and outlooks that weren't my own. I felt trapped. Enslaved... 

By a military that told me where to go and what to do when I got there. 

By a religion that told me that I was born disgusting and needed to beg the God that created me that way for his forgiveness and redemption.

By a church that taught me that pain is atonement. 

By a culture that told me that a man's duty is to sacrifice and to serve to the complete neglect of the self. 

By a marriage that told me that I was never good enough. 

By a society that told me that idealists, philosophers, and writers no longer have a place in the world.

By a world that forced me not to dream while teaching me about the heroes who have.

 By a government that prefers us to act as a cog on the wheel of capitalism than to think and progress in our own journeys. To work our lives a way for a chance to achieve "The American Dream." As if there is only one. 

Don't question, just accept. Don't think, just go through the motions. Get yourself into debt and never climb back out of it. Read headlines and speak about them, but never act on the words that are spoken. 

I'd reached my absolute limit. I'd lived over a decade as a man so overwhelmed that I feared nothing. Felt nothing. For me, the ultimate choice was simple. Die trying to live the life that had been set before me, or challenge and change it for the chance to experience an emotion I couldn't recall: Happiness.

 Happiness had become an idea to me. Not a thing to be experienced, but one to always to strive for. Not a state that could ever occur in the present. 
Happiness was tomorrow.

It was an illusion to create for others since I couldn't achieve it for myself. Happiness was my greatest failure...something everyone else could seemingly obtain, but that I could not. I'd spent many sleepless nights trying to define it. To experience it. 

In truth, I was only enslaved by myself. 

...So I set myself free.   

I obtained an honorable discharged from the military, found a transition job, and will be moving to an exciting career next month.  

I had a very serious and heated discussion with God - it contained too many cuss words, and allowed us to move on to more progressive conversations. I learned what God is, in truth, outside of the way men have defined him.

I divorced the woman who was not for me. 

I sold the over-sized house and the yard so large I couldn't spare the time to maintain it. 

I began to dream. 

I published my first book. 

I learned to tell my story in a way that helped others to create their own. 

I challenged and overcame every institution that had held me down and created a new life. 








And finally,


I learned to stand on my own two feet, and God - the universe itself, which he created - gave me the best gift I've ever received in the entirety of my existence.


She, who augments my strength. 

She, who enhances my happiness.

She, who challenges my perspective. 

She, who helps me fight my battles. 

She, who supports my dreams.

She, who understands the words I never write or speak.


There was perhaps a time when I feared happiness, but that time is long past. There was perhaps a time when I held onto my demons as the only thing that ensured my survival - I have since let go of them all. There was perhaps a time when the world as it stands now was nothing but a candle whose flame I concealed in the one safe place I could offer: my soul. Now that flame has become my reality. 

Not a child's love, but that of a man who has seen the world and the darkness in it...a man who has learned to identify the light.

A man who does not fear pain, but who welcomes comfort and understanding.

A man who understands loyalty and would do absolutely anything for the ones he loves.

And what symbol is there that can ever represent such a love? There is only one. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Southwest, 2018 (Part 4): A "Grand" Adventure

A canyon almost a mile deep.

A canyon so large it is considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world. 

So vast that it can be known only by one name: 


I knew that we'd visit the Grand Canyon at some point during the trip, but I was surprised at how quickly the day arrived. I never really paid much attention to where we were going until we got there, but the night before the Grand Canyon I remember someone casually saying, "The long hike is tomorrow." I immediately began to hydrate, and found myself slightly intimidated. I mean, I was moderately fit as a relatively fresh veteran, but I really hadn't worked out since my separation from the Navy, and I found that the hikes of the trip thus far were taking their tole on me. 

I'd been to the Grand Canyon before - to the South Rim - and the majesty of the place had inspired me to name my daughter after the state which held it. Arizona is three now. My trip to the South rim had been less of a vision quest and more of a photo op. I'd been assigned to Ft. Huachucha for a month of training, and had made a quick trip to raft a calm section of the Colorado and see the canyon itself. The day had been rushed and I'd missed the opportunity to climb down deep into the belly of the beast. I would not miss that opportunity again.  

 Prior to our departure to the Southwest, we'd been briefed on the forth-coming opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon - up to 16 miles of it. We'd been warned that, if we weren't ready physically, we shouldn't go.

 Nothing could've stopped me. 

There were 5 others who felt equally thrilled about the hike. We called ourselves "The Fellowship of the..." Wait...never mind, one mustn't plagiarize.  

Among those who hiked the canyon were myself and the Gypsy, our friend Lydia (who was pursuing her PhD; congrats on achieving it), and a number of students from Cumberland County, TN and the surrounding area. I won't write much about the students because I don't have their explicit permission to, but each of them had a distinct personality, and I remember all of them fondly. A photograph of the group (which has already been publicly shared) can be seen below.

Amanda and I hiked a fair portion of the way down with Lydia (left side of the group), who is a much more experienced and capable hiker than I am. I've always enjoyed my conversations with her, and consider her something of a kindred spirit. I've learned to recognize and appreciate when I'm around people who are smarter than me, and she's definitely one of them. She's a person that I can learn something from, or at the very least consult in matters of perspective. If I had to guess her Myers-Briggs, I'd go for INTJ or possibly an ISTJ. (Lydia! What's your MB???)

Lydia, Amanda and I opted to jog down, slowing occasionally for photos or to enjoy the scenery. We wanted to get the easy part out of the way and give ourselves the maximum amount of time for the return trip. One of the students had already surpassed us at a near sprint, and the other two were lagging behind; their intent was to enjoy the day, not to hike to a particular destination and back. As hours passed, it was surprising just how far down it felt like we had already traveled, but the canyon descended further still. There were incredible flowers hidden away in the dryness, and our eyes eventually adjusted to seeking them out. 

We also found...well, I'm not really sure what to call it. Just look at the pictures below. A nest?

It was obviously an incredible day in the outdoors, but even climbing down was terribly exhausting. My mentality that day had been the same as it was for the entire trip..."I'm doing this." But when, around 5.5 miles into the hike, Amanda started experiencing some light dizziness and cramping, we decided to separate from the student sprinter (who had stopped and waited near the Roaring Springs pictured below) and Lydia. 

After Lydia and the sprinter continued on, we rested, ate, and re-hydrated. 
We hiked a small side trail, and then decided we should probably start the journey back up. I think I would've continued my descent if Amanda had felt better, but in hindsight it would've been an absolutely terrible idea. The best path was the one we chose together, which was to slow down and enjoy where we were at as we began the treacherous 5.5 mile journey back up the canyon. The difference in elevation was over 3000 feet.

Here are some of the photos we captured that day. 

In a dozen moments like the one pictured below, we thought we saw the top of the canyon, only to reach that point and see that we had multiple tiers left to climb. It was so defeating to think you'd done it only to see that you were possibly half way to the top. 

Each time we stopped to rest (which was eventually every five feet or so) it became more difficult to continue on. By the time we finished the hike, I wanted nothing more than to pass out. We were beyond thankful for our friend Steven's arrival with the van and some snickers bars. I didn't think I was going to be able to get out of the van when we got back to camp, but we managed to get a quick shower and eat some chili before we completely crashed.

That climb was the closest event in the whole trip to describing what the previous year had been like for me. It was as if each tier of the canyon represented an obstacle I'd overcome. My relationship with religion was one. Coping with my father's cancer, another. Giving the foster children I'd grown to love so deeply to another family. My transition from the military. My divorce. My daughter moving away from my home. My loved one's perception of me changing. Depression. PTSD. Trying desperately to rid myself of multiple mortgages. Tier after tier presented itself and I climbed over them, thinking each time that I had nothing left.

Each of them loomed before me, an obstacle impossible to overcome. Looking back from the top though, having defeated the challenge, was the closest thing to what I feel like now, having found happiness following my many years in the dark deep. 

Later that night, Lydia arrived back at camp with the one student who had gone the full 16 miles. While even Lydia was exhausted, the student was borderline hypothermic, so before Amanda and I crashed out, the medic was called to action. She prescribed warm food, a blanket, and some time by the campfire, and also suggested he remove his dripping wet cotton clothes. 

Amanda and I have agreed to return to the Grand Canyon one day for a rim-to-rim hike. Following the obstacle we overcame together that day, we slept in a hammock right on the canyon's edge. It was one of the best nights of sleep I have ever had. One suggestion, though: before you begin your descent into the Grand Canyon, be sure to find time for a proper poo. It'll just make the second half of the day much easier for you.

Ah, humanity. Overthink it as I may, it always comes back down to the basics.